Renting a Camper Van with a Roof-Top Tent: Off-Grid Living
As you probably know, the popularity of this website has brought me some notoriety and because of that I was in a documentary about vandwelling that turned out really well called “Without Bound.” Last month at Thanksgiving I had a second film crew come into camp to start work on a second documentary. The director, Lars, is a German national who has been living in France for the last 20 years, and the cameraman, Michele, is a Frenchman; both spoke fluent English.
However, this blog isn’t about them, it’s about their rental camper van! Adventurous people, like filmmakers, travel all over the world traveling, exploring, partaking in extreme sports and making documentaries and rental agencies have sprung up to support them with inexpensive rental camper vans. They were in a rental camper van that I thought was so cool I just had to share it with you. There are two things about it of interest to us:
- It’s cheap enough that most of us could afford to rent one of their vans and try it out for awhile to see if vandwelling is really for you. Vandwelling sounds wonderful, and most people fall in love with it, but it isn’t for everybody–renting a van to camp out of can help you decide if it’s for you or not before you uproot your whole life and jump in with both feet. You could even fly into Los Angeles and rent one there to visit the RTR!
- They were in an older Astro van with a very good layout and a roof-top tent. Included in the rental price was every camping article that you could need to camp in comfort, stove, pots and pans, plates and utensils, chairs–everything!! All you had to bring were your clothes, sleeping bag and personal items. I’ve got to admit the tent was very cool! It took just minutes to set up and take down and yet it provided total protection for the weather and from crawling or walking predators that might be interested in you.
First, let me tell you about the rental agency. They have offices worldwide but only two in North America which are in Los Angeles and Vancouver, which makes sense because they are both major hubs of the film industry and international tourism to North America. The one in LA would work very well to fly into and rent a van to come to the RTR! Their website is here: http://www.wickedcampers.com/ and rental information for the Los Angeles office is here; https://secure.rentalcarmanager.com/sslwicked/WickedCanada133/CANStep2.asp?refid=&URL=.
Of course they aren’t the only camper-van rental, there are others for about the same price and they all have pros and cons. I’ve got to admit the roof-top tent would really appeal to me because it gives you the whole van opened up. It was a joke with Lars and Michele that Lars snored, but after a few nights it wasn’t funny anymore so Lars slept in the tent while Michele slept downstairs in the van. They were friends before the trip and wanted to stay that way! There are several other places to rent camper vans and I did a quick search and found these, but you’ll have to do your own research and see which works best for you:
- http://www.lostcampersusa.com/ these were the cheapest of any I looked at.
- http://www.escapecampervans.com/?lang=en They rent minivans and full size vans and also have offices in Las Vegas and the East Coast.
- http://www.jucyrentals.com/vehicles/jucy-champ.aspx they offer minivans and roof tents.
- http://www.campervannorthamerica.com/rates.shtml nicer but more expensive
Mainly in this post I want to focus on the tent and the advantages it offers, which are a lot! At the bottom of the post are a lot of photos and a video showing them packing the tent away. Here are some of the main advantages I see:
- Safety from predators: In some parts of the world, and even some places here in America, that is a serious issue and many people will sleep better being that far off the ground. As long as you never, ever have food in the tent, most animals should just ignore it.
- Bug protection: With a van you are constantly opening and closing the doors so its very easy for mosquitoes and flies to get in. But with the tent you just get in once or twice a day and keep the netting zipped up otherwise. So flying insects shouldn’t be an issue. It should also be much better for things like mice, scorpions, snakes, brown recluse or black widow spiders. While some of them still can get into the tent, being further removed makes it less likely and safer.
- Room for gear and hobbies: Many sports, hobbies or jobs require extra gear that vans just don’t have. But if you can get rid of the bed by sleeping up on the roof in the tent, that opens up a lot of space in the van. Obviously Lars and Michele had brought a lot of camera gear and that took up lots of room, without a bed downstairs, they had enough room for it.
- Plenty of room during bad weather: When you’re stuck inside by bad weather, more space is better because you can be more comfortable and can do more things.
- Privacy: if there are two of you, it lets you get away from each other if you need to.
But roof-top tents have their disadvantages as well:
- They are very expensive: Because they are intended for a small market, overland world travelers, who demand only the highest quality, they are very expensive. The cheapest I found was $700 but I wouldn’t trust it’s quality. There were a couple at $900 but most were $1500 and up. I would budget a minimum of $1500 for one and expect to pay $2500 for one that would last me a long time.
- Wind can make sleeping in it difficult: In a bad enough wind the van will be rocking and the tent itself will be flapping and shaking, as well as cold. That might force you into the van for sleep.
- Set-up is inconvenient: Even though it was remarkably easy, it still took about 30 minutes for the two of them to put it away and doing that every time you needed to take a trip into town would get old fast. Scroll to the bottom of the post for pictures of the process of packing the roof-top tent away. It’s surprisingly easy and setting it up is as easy or even easier.
- Getting in and out of bed is inconvenient: for sure I’d want a pee-pot in it with me because a trip outside at night to go to the bathroom will be an adventure! It wasn’t hard at all to get in and out, but neither was it easy! Also, if it’s raining you have to leave the dry van, go out into the rain and climb the ladder to get into the tent. In a hard enough rain that could leave you very wet when you got to bed.
- Durability: The tent seemed very well made and very high quality, but over a period of time the wind will take its toll on it as will rain. Much worse are the damaging effects of the suns UV rays which eventually will destroy all fabrics. So both on sunny and rainy days the tent is slowly being damaged, and on windy days it’s being damaged even more quickly. A high quality tent like this one should easily last a few years or it may last decades, there’s no way to know. But you know for certain that some day it will need to be replaced.
- It makes installing solar very difficult. Unless you have a full-size van, the tent takes up the whole roof, leaving no room for solar. Even with a full-size van it leaves you with a shadow to contend with.
- It will cut your gas mileage and kill your stealth. The tents are big and impossible to miss either by law enforcement, nosy neighbors or the wind.
1) I love the rentals and think more people should consider them as an alternative. If for some reason you can’t go full-time but still long to travel, they may be perfect for you. You can keep your economy car as a daily driver saving a lot of money on gas every year and fly into the place you want to explore and rent a camper van. That way you will save on gas getting to the area and on wear and tear on the vehicle. By the time you factor in the cost of buying, maintaining, insuring and operating a second van or RV as a travel vehicle, I think they rental camper vans might be competitive cost and convenience wise.
2) If you are considering a roof-top tent for a full time nomad vehicle, I don’t recommend them. While we are all different and have different needs, unless you are an Overland World Traveler I can’t see a good reason to full-time with a roof-top tent. There main advantage is safety from predators, but in the USA our main fear is bears and they offer no real protection from them. A bear can pull that thing down in a second. You do get away from snakes and scorpions but honestly they are a very low risk and not worth all the disadvantages and price of one of these things.
There are people for whom a tent offers enough advantages to be worth the hassles, but a high quality mountaineering tent can be bought for around $500 and offers almost all the advantages and few of the disadvantages of a roof-top tent. The MSR Fury has an outstanding reputation as able to handle any weather: MSR Fury Mountaineering Tent North Face makes a reasonably priced Mountaineering tent that will stand up extremely well to a vandwellers us: The North Face Mountain 25 Mountaineering Tent as does Mountain Hardwear: Mountain Hardwear Trango Mountaineering Tent 2-Person 4-Season
Here’s why a mountaineering tent would be better:
- They cost much, much less and are made just as well or better. They are built with severe mountain storms in mind where your life depends on your tent and tent failure is a death sentence. Therefore they will last longer.
- You’ll sleep better in wind and rain in a tent on the ground than you will in a roof-top tent. You can park your van to be a wind break for a tent on the ground and being lower it will be hit by less wind, plus, the ground won’t rock under you but the van will. The geodesic and aerodynamic design of mountaineering tents will flap less and hold up better.
- You don’t have to take it down every time you go into town. That alone makes them a better choice for me.
- They pack much smaller and won’t take the whole roof leaving you room for a storage rack or solar.
- It still leaves you the van empty without a bed giving you much more room for gear and comfort. In fact, if you put a gear rack on the roof instead of the tent, you will have less stuff inside than you would have with a roof-top tent because more can go up top.
Scroll to the bottom of the post for pictures of the process of packing the roof-top tent away. It’s surprisingly easy and setting it up is as easy or even easier.
I’m making Videos on my good friends James and Kyndal’s YouTube Channel. See them here:
We shot a video of them packing up the tent so you can see it in action:
If you don’t see the video above, click or cut and past this
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